'The EU is Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner, yet here we are preparing for a referendum on whether to stay in it'
Brexit would be like cutting off your face to spite your nose, says NI businessman Dr Len O’Hagan
The EU was born of a Europe wounded and exhausted in the wake of the Second World War. Back then as the dust settled, the need to march towards peace rather than into battle was clearer than it had ever been.
And it was Winston Churchill who saw the way, telling Europe in his own inimitable style, that, “We cannot aim at anything less than the union of Europe as a whole.”
His vision was of a people from different backgrounds and of different cultures standing together and moving towards a safer, stronger, more prosperous future. Who in Northern Ireland can fail to appreciate those aspirations? They are our own.
In this part of the world, we know we are safer, stronger and more prosperous when we find accord and work together.
Let me say this. I am proud of Northern Ireland. I am proud of everything it has achieved over the last few years. I am proud of the way we are growing and moving forwards, welcoming foreign investors, attracting new trade and helping our hard-working home to stand up and claim its place on the world stage as a safe and strong economy.
But I believe our bright future is under threat. And we must now protect everything we have fought for from the shadow of a dark and wholly uncertain risk.
Leaving the EU promises to deal a heavy blow to our businesses, our agriculture, our jobs, our rights and our hard-won peace.
Why? Because while the EU is not perfect — it isn’t — and while there is work to be done — there is — we can look at an ocean of simple, transparent facts and come to only one conclusion: that we are all safer, stronger and more prosperous as part of the European Union.
Everyone wants to live in a world where any man and any woman can go out and find a job that pays a decent wage and offers them the security and respect they deserve. Leave campaigners will tell you that the EU hasn’t given Northern Ireland those things.
They’ll tell you that an independent UK would uphold worker’s rights and increase funding for public services and consolidate subsidies for farmers. That there is a secret band of benevolent MPs and ministers in Westminster, just desperate to make decisions in Northern Ireland’s best interests. That they have some kind of magic economic formula hidden up their sleeve which will cause the concerns of the world’s most prominent voices to merely drift away. History teaches us otherwise.
Imagine it’s the morning after the night before. We have two short years to agree our exit and find a way to organise a vast tangle of legislation. New trade agreements, bargaining from a point of weakness with an economic superpower in which we once played a leading role.
New legislation for UK citizens living and working in the Republic of Ireland. New legislation for people from the Republic living and working in the north. New legislation to cover a huge raft of laws covering everything from mobile roaming charges to working time directives and agreements with the Republic on electricity, security and a raft of other key partnerships.
It is at best naive and at worst disingenuous to say this vast mess cold be untangled in two years. As the PWC-Ireland report stated only last month, the negotiation of a potential exit in itself will take many years. Many years. It continues: “We believe that the greater the UK access to the EU, the greater the benefit to Ireland.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the implications of a Brexit for our relationship with the Republic of Ireland are a real concern. It will be hard to focus the minds in Westminster on Irish trade deals when it’s having to negotiate from a point of weakness with other, larger economies. What then for our two tightly-knit economies?
And what for our shared security and peace? As Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: “Common membership of the EU project is part of the glue holding the transition process together.”
He’s quite right. Our countries work closely on intelligence sharing and cross-border policing. Arguably the greatest risk the Republic of Ireland has faced in the last five decades is the instability in Northern Ireland and now, our precious accord is in genuine danger.
Meanwhile, the EU is set to spend 118 million Euros on Peace programme funding up to 2020 and its absolute dedication to peace in Northern Ireland was shown recently on the announcement of another £190m to support peace and reconciliation. It’s hard to imagine that such funding could be matched without the EU’s help.
The OECD, the IMF, the Global Council, the CBI, India, China, the United States, Australia the G20, the Bank of England ... report after report and study after study by an army of economists, professors, world leaders, scientists, journalists, sociologists and historians all say the same thing. Northern Ireland is safer, stronger and more prosperous as part of the EU. And, what’s more, we have more to lose by leaving than anywhere.
The Oxford Economics Group carried out a study specifically on Northern Ireland and explained that we stand to lose more from leaving the EU than any other part of the UK. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner, taking 44% of or exports, but in Northern Ireland, the figure is even more significant.
We exported £3.6bn-worth of goods to the EU in 2014. That was 61% of total goods exports. Think about that figure: 61%. Three times as much as to the United States. Meanwhile, 34% of exports from Northern Ireland go to the Republic. £2.1bn was traded freely across our shared and open border last year alone. And yet, here we are preparing for a referendum on whether or not we should maintain our link with the EU. It’s like cutting off your face to spite your nose.
Let’s look at the border question. Leave campaigners promise a crack-down on immigration, hoping to bring a points-based system to the UK. Yet, they haven’t managed to agree on what that would mean for us. If you are preventing EU citizens from moving to the UK then surely you must have some form of barrier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Leave campaigner Lord Lawson has said as much.
But the Brexiters don’t seem keen on fact or clarity, so they made sure to disagree on this fundamental question. Theresa Villiers has said there will be no change to border arrangements. Any kind of barrier on the border will represent, not just an economic shock but also a symbolic one. There are still walls separating communities in Belfast. Let’s not build a wall on our border.
But — let’s keep this in perspective. The truth is that, most likely, Brexit campaigners wouldn’t get closed borders even if they did beat the odds and win the referendum. Norway wanted free trade with the EU and to get it, it had to sign up to something called the “Four Freedoms”: the free movement of goods, services, persons and capital. In other words, open borders…free migration. They also have to pay into the EU — very nearly as much as the UK does.
As the Oxford Economic Report and the Neri report that followed it both acknowledged, the anatomy of Northern Ireland’s economy makes it particularly vulnerable to a Brexit. Our industry already struggles to compete with global competitors and it’s vital they’re not faced with new export tariffs.
Our farmers are particularly exposed, because they would lose subsidies and lose trade with the Republic. 87% of farm income in Northern Ireland comes from EU subsidies and even the slightest drop in support would put farms out of business, leading to higher food prices and deep injury to rural communities.
The truth about the Leave campaign is that it’s offering us the once-in-a-lifetime chance to knock the legs from under Northern Ireland, just as it begins to stand. To have the same border controls as we have now, but without billions of inward investment, without farming subsidies, without millions pumped into peace and reconciliation, without the security of shared intelligence and without any say whatsoever in the future of Europe, our closest friend, our ally and — here more than anywhere else — our neighbour. That is the truth. That is the fact.
I believe most people here today can appreciate that leaving the EU is a dangerous leap in the dark for Northern Ireland. But still there are those who claim the EU has been “bad for business”. Again, we hear the word “meddling” and we wonder, what does that mean in reality?
For some, it means worker’s rights. Businesses will sometimes claim they are hobbled by EU rules, imposed by autocrats in Brussels. In fact, the rules introduced by the EU come as simple minimum standards, with a caveat: that they should be introduced “according to national rules and standards”. Put simply, to fit the specific and diverse needs of each individual country.
In fact, what very often happens is that the Government in Westminster will impose stricter rules than are demanded by the EU and then pretend that Brussels gave them no choice. It’s called gold-plating and it has given the EU an undeserved reputation.
Have a think about this extraordinary fact. According to the OECD, there is less so-called red tape in the UK than any other EU country. The OECD looked at the strictness of employment protection for individual and collective dismissals in regular contracts and found that the UK has less red tape than the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Chile, Latvia, Slovenia, Mexico and ... Korea! Far from being overregulated, it could be argued the UK still has some catching up to do on worker’s rights.
But what rights has the EU given to workers in the UK? It has given people protection from dangerous machinery, chemicals and other risks to health. It has guaranteed us a minimum of 28 days of paid leave a year. It has limited the hours we can be forced to work to 48 hours a week and 13 hours a day, unless we wish to do more.
It has given the same fundamental rights to employees, whether they be full-time, part-time, temporary or permanent, in-house or agency. It has made sure that men and women must be paid the same wage for doing the same job. It has enforced statutory maternity and paternity leave. It has protected us from discrimination on age, gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. It has protected us from healthcare costs if you become ill on holiday in any EU country.
And — for any Leave campaigner who thinks a Brexit would allow businesses to be free to hire and fire or discriminate or set gruelling working hours as they please — they’re almost certainly ... wrong. Just as with border controls, any trade deal done with the EU post-Brexit would require that the UK signed up to the same laws the Leave campaign promises we could walk away from.
As the Centre for European Reform explains, and I quote: “In order to maintain access to EU markets, a Britain on the outside would have to sign up to many of the EU’s rules. As a non-participant in the EU’s institutions, it would have little say over the rules.”
These are the facts. This is the reality.
Northern Ireland and each worker in Northern Ireland is safer, stronger and more prosperous in the European Union. We have to protect everything we have fought for from this threat to our economy, to our rights and to our lasting peace. We must be proud of Northern Ireland. We must look at what we have achieved already and think about what we can still achieve. Let’s not throw it away on empty promises and confused ideology.
Vote for investment. Vote for an open border with the Republic. Vote for worker’s rights. Vote for a future built on a cross-community accord, pulling down walls, rather than creating new barriers. Vote for security, prosperity and strength. Vote Remain.
** This speech was given by Dr Len O’Hagan at the Irish Bank Officials Association conference in Dublin on Saturday. Dr O’Hagan is non-executive director of INM, publisher of the Belfast Telegraph **